Van Horn has a great stadium, perhaps the best in college baseball. The local following is tremendous. There are plenty of teams looking to head south early in the year with a desire to play at Baum Stadium.
Yet, Van Horn's early games are usually on the road. He'll go to Texas-Arlington, Dallas Baptist, Louisiana Tech or Troy.
Yes, those are further south than the Ozarks, but it isn't like February is going to be warm anywhere you go outside of Florida or Arizona.
So there's got to be another reason Van Horn takes his club on the road. I figured it out after watching him in action last weekend in Troy, Ala. I took an old coach along for the ride last weekend and he got it.
Van Horn wants to get his youngsters covered in oil and see if they ignite when the fire hits or if they stay cool. Can they play under pressure? Or do they wilt? About the best place to find that out is when you are on the road in college baseball.
I listened closely last week before the Hogs went to Troy when Van Horn talked at the Swatter's Club about "getting cussed" by Tech fans who sat atop the dugout for the three games in Ruston, La., for the first weekend of the season.
It wasn't that bad at Troy, partly because the dugouts are far removed from the stands in Pace-Riddle Field. But it was a true road environment in that there were hardly any Razorback fans at Troy. I counted about 25 wearing Arkansas gear out of the Sunday crowd of around 2,000. There were probably 1,200 UA fans at Ruston comprising some 40 percent of the overall crowd.
I think Van Horn wants to win every game on the schedule. But he's confident enough in his abilities and knows there are enough games on a long college baseball schedule that if he loses a couple early, it's not going to keep the Hogs out of the NCAA baseball playoffs.
If you listen to Van Horn, it may actually help them get there. Van Horn played about everyone on his deep roster over the last two weekends. He started several true freshman and many junior college transfers, too.
I looked at his lineup Saturday at Troy and knew this wasn't his best group. He wanted to give some of his new players a baptism under fire. It didn't work out in a 13-8 loss. And, that wasn't all bad, either. It gave him a chance to unload on them after the game in a typical Dave Van Horn post-game tirade.
I wasn't that close to Van Horn's team meeting in right field. And, if you were at ground level you couldn't even see Van Horn because this team is so tall that he was completely hidden in that tight circle. But if you were still in the press box, as I was at the start, you could see Van Horn's head bobbing as he turned first to one player and then another as he gave them a tongue lashing about the way they played.
Some of the veterans called it one of the "three or four best" of Van Horn's post-game undressings during their time at Arkansas. Some of the newcomers called it "very intimidating." And, that was what they said after Sunday's game, thinking back about what it was like Saturday.
The fact that one of the players referred to it as "best" tells you about all you need to know. The players didn't dislike what Van Horn did. In fact, they liked it. They know they played their best baseball of the season on Sunday in the 16-2 trouncing of a good Troy team that will most likely make the NCAA field again this season.
Little Wayne Hrozek, a returning player who had three hits and his first collegiate homer on Sunday, called it a "reality check." And, to me it's why Van Horn likes to go on the road early in the season.
I visited with my trip mate for the weekend, someone with 25 years of high school coaching experience and a winning record from start to finish, on the trip home as we rolled through Selma, Ala. He told me he admired Van Horn after watching him work over the weekend. My friend stood on the rail of the chain link fence between the Arkansas dugout and the bullpen. He liked everything he saw.
"He has a firm handle on everything that happens," the old coach said of Van Horn. "He is very disciplined. He was confident. Yes, he is very tough on his players, but more than fair. I've found in my dealings with young people that they do not mind tough as long as it is fair. It's when it's not fair or consistent that you have problems. I doubt Dave Van Horn is anything but fair and consistent after what I saw this weekend. He is VERY good.
"Are the players a little scared of him? Yes, but that's OK. They respect him.
"When I saw his lineup on Saturday, I didn't think it was maybe his best team. It was clear to me that he wanted to find out about some of them. But when they came to the park on Sunday, it was clear that he was going with his best and that they knew the stakes were high and that they needed to put it on the other team. They did. I liked the way he went about the entire weekend because he did find about his team and who could handle the heat.
"I even like the way he took on the umpire at first base on Saturday when he missed a call. He shoved the first base coach out of the way and said, ‘You get out of here. I'll handle this.' Then he did. He gave that umpire a working over like I haven't seen in a long time. I think he would have been tossed, but the umpire knew he was right."
The heat wasn't just playing on the road. It was standing up to the pressure Van Horn put on them over the course of the three days.
When it was all over Sunday night and the Hogs were headed toward the team bus, he was smiling in his usual confident way. He knew he has a good team, as always. He found out which ones of his young ones were ready to handle the heat, and which ones might need a few more weeks of watching everything to be able to provide top-notch help.
"We'll be better later in this season when we go on the road in the SEC after playing these two road weekends," he said as he finished his meeting with the press Sunday afternoon. "And, some of these young ones who didn't quite get it done this time, will the next time. We'll come back to them. But right now, I think we have figured out what we have right now and who is ready."
There are some things I'm not sure about. Dave Van Horn isn't one of them. I'm sure he's sure and that's he's right.
CLAY HENRY IS THE PUBLISHER OF HAWGS ILLUSTRATED, A STEPHENS MEDIA GROUP PUBLICATION. HIS COLUMN APPEARS EACH FRIDAY. E-MAIL: CLAY@NWAONLINE.NET
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